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Four Downs: Did Lions violate NFL rules in reporting of Matthew Stafford's injury?

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Chicago — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions' 20-13 loss to the Chicago Bears.

Injured Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford missed Sunday's game against the Bears.

First down

The story from Sunday's game was the unexpected absence of quarterback Matthew Stafford from the lineup. A back injury, suffered in the closing minutes of the previous week's game in Oakland, proved to be too much to overcome, despite early-week indications it wasn't a big deal

Prior to the game, and continuing through the postgame, there were inconsistencies with the process. The news that Stafford's status was in jeopardy leaked late Saturday night, in an NFL Network report. Before the game, general manager Bob Quinn said Stafford wasn't medically cleared, while coach Matt Patricia made it sound as if the decision was his during his postgame press conference. In the locker room, some players claimed they knew about the decision to sit Stafford on Saturday, while others, including backup quarterback Jeff Driskel, said they were informed Sunday morning, hours before kickoff. 

It wouldn't be surprising to learn the entire roster wasn't kept apprised of the situation, but the fact that some players said they knew, and it leaked to a national media outlet, suggest a potential violation of the league's injury-reporting policy. 

It reads, "Injuries or other events that occur after 4:00 p.m., New York time, on the designated game status reporting day (Friday) must be reported immediately if the injury or event could affect a player’s ability to play in that week’s game."

The Lions have done this a number of times this year, downgrading players previously listed as questionable to doubtful or out on Saturday. While it's being presented that Stafford still had a shot of suiting up as of Sunday, which is entirely possible, downgrading the quarterback to doubtful likely should have occurred. 

On Monday morning, ESPN reported the league is investigating how Detroit handled the process. 

Typically, violations of the injury reporting policy typically carry a fine for the organization, but also can lead to suspensions and forfeiture of draft picks. 

Second down

Quarterback Jeff Driskel showed his mobility in his first start Sunday for the Lions.

Regarding Driskel, there were some notable positives out of the backup quarterback's performance. First and foremost, his mobility is a real weapon, both when it comes to escaping pressure in the pocket and scrambling for first downs. 

In terms of passing, it appeared that the Lions focused on simplifying his responsibilities, keeping most of his route options close to the line of scrimmage. When he did have opportunities to throw downfield, he showed good arm strength and reasonable accuracy. His biggest issue came from locking into early reads, staring those receivers down and forcing throws into tight to non-existent windows.

There was no better example than his third-quarter interception, where he locked on to his receiver, allowing the linebacker to read his eyes and undercut the route from an underneath zone. 

Who knows when Stafford will be back. It's entirely possible he returns this season, and potentially within the next couple of weeks, but odds are Driskel will make another start. If that's the case, there are a couple of things that could bolster his overall effectiveness. 

First, incorporate more zone reads, designed runs and moving pockets. No one is going to confuse Driskel for Lamar Jackson, but Driskel ran his 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds coming out of college, which is blazing for the position. The Lions need to put that mobility and speed to work more than they did against the Bears. 

Second, let him take more shots down field. Removing Stafford from the equation understandably shrinks the playbook, because you're not going to trust Driskel to that degree, but he clearly has the arm strength to work the ball vertically more than he did on Sunday.  

Third down

We’ve spilled plenty of ink on linebacker Jarrad Davis the past weeks. And that’s been merited. The former first-round pick has struggled, mightily, all season. In this space last week, we posed the question of reducing his playing time, and while the coaching staff would likely reject it being framed that way, that’s exactly what happened in Chicago.

Davis played 77 percent of Detroit’s defensive snaps against the Bears, his lowest of the season. Without digging into the film, which we’ll do Tuesday, it’s difficult to ascertain the specifics of the rotation, but whatever the logic, it worked well within the sample size.

No one should be making any declarations based off a single performance, especially one that’s counter to the established track record, but Davis played his best game of the season, and that wasn’t even reliant upon his previously established ability to rush the passer.

Where Davis’ improvement showed up the most was his patience defending the run. On one play in particularly, instead of aggressively changing into a gap to meet the fullback head-on, Davis stayed back, funneled the trailing running back into traffic, staying with him through the cutback and dropping him at the line of scrimmage.

If Davis can build off this performance, particularly reducing his over-pursuit in the run game, it bodes well for his hopes of getting his season on track.

Fourth down

No one is going to feel good out of a loss, but it’s rare when you can’t find a positive to highlight in defeat. In this case, the work of the offensive tackles, particularly starters Rick Wagner and Taylor Decker, deserves some attention.

Bears edge defender Khalil Mack is one of the best in the business at getting to the quarterback. He’s a game-plan wrecker, and that ability increases when the opponent is starting an inexperienced backup under center. But Decker and Wagner held Mack at bay. He was so ineffective, there were lengthy stretches you forgot he was on the field.

Mack did get some pressure on the pocket — four hurries according to Pro Football Focus — but only one came against the starting tackles. More importantly, Mack didn’t register a single quarterback hit or sack on Driskel.

Decker’s season has been up-and-down, but far more up, since a disastrous performance in the season opener. He had another rough day against Minnesota in Week 6, but has otherwise allowed eight pressures in his six other starts, including a clean sheet on Sunday.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers